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Sara Petrosyan

What’s Going on at Garni’s Stone Symphony? Government Financed Construction at Odds with a $55 Million World Bank Loan to Spur Local Tourism

Government Mismanagement or Miscommunication? The Puzzle Unfolds

Something strange is going on at the Stone Symphony natural monument in Garni’s Azat River Gorge.

The 5,000 square meter site, protected as a national landmark, is a hard place to reach. The lack of adequate roads has kept it off the major tourist circuit for years.

Just days ago, photos appeared in Facebook showing construction at the site. Someone started to build wood scaffolding near the Stone Symphony Many were concerned that something illegal was going on at the site. The reality, it turns out, is much more bizarre; even for Armenia.

The Symphony of Stone site, along with many other cultural heritage sites in Armenia (including Khor Virap, the Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries, Zorats Qarer (Stonehenge), the Mozrov Cave, Geghardavank, the Garni Preserve) were slated for improvement under the 2015 World Bank US$68.75 million Local Economy and Infrastructure Development Project (LEIDP).

Simply put, the project was envisaged to improve infrastructure services and institutional capacity for increased tourism contribution to the local economy in five selected regions of the country. 

The World Bank (WB) committed to granting a $55million 25-year loan if Armenia promised to kick-in $13.75 million in co-financing. Armenia has failed to do so, and the project, slated to begin in 2016, hasn’t gotten off the ground.

To date, only $270,00 has been spent, mostly on preparing project drafts and announcing tender bids for the envisaged work.

 It may be a bit mind boggling to many, but while this multi-million-dollar project is on hold, a Garni resident, who had leased a parcel of land with government financing near the Stone Symphony monument, decided to start building what in Armenia is commonly known as a “tourist relaxation zone” nearby.

The Ministry of Nature Protection, responding to the concerns raised by the public, investigated and found that the construction was too close to the landmark site. The ministry has issued a decree obligating the resident to halt the illegal construction on land zoned for agricultural usage.

When the construction photos appeared in Facebook, many believed it might be construction undertaken by the government as part of the above-mentioned WB project.  As stated, that project remains on paper, even though the Armenian government has long since drafted a plan to spur tourism at the Stone Symphony site.

If it ever gets off the ground, the Stone Symphony project will be managed by the Ministry of Economic Development and Investments. 

Those plans include improving the roadway from the village of Garni to the Stone Symphony; organizing the trails leading from Garni Temple down into the Azat River Gorge; improving the roadway from the Garni Visitors Center to the Khosrov National Forest Tourist Center; reinstalling primary drinking water pipes; and the installation of lighting and seating at the Stone Symphony site.

Armenia’s Association of Professional Tour Guides sent a team of volunteers down to the site to investigate recent developments.

They learnt that Garni resident Shmavon Hambardzumyan and his daughter had started to build the “tourist relaxation zone” on the banks of the Azat River, some 12 meters from the Stone Symphony.

To make matters worse, the construction has been financed by the Small and Medium Entrepreneurship Development National Center of Armenia (SME DNC), which in turn is co-financed by the Armenian government and the UNDP.

The SME DNC, it turns out, is an arm of the Ministry of Economic Development and Investments – the very same ministry that’s supposed to be coordinating the Stone Symphony improvement project co-financed by the World Bank. Moreover, the Minister of Economic Development and Investments, Suen Karayan, chairs the SME DNC’s Board of Trustees  and should have been aware about the loan project planned for that territory.

It appears that the ministry, and by extension the government, can’t juggle two projects at the same time.

Since the World Bank’s $55 million loan is on hold, the government has gone ahead and issued an AMD 5 million loan ($10,400) to the Hambardzumyans to build some dinky touristy monstrosity in the Azat River Gorge. Talk about priorities… 

Armenian Minister of Economic Development and Investments Suren Karayan had nothing to say on the scandal when the matter was raised at a recent government cabinet session.

In response to Hetq’s inquiry about how a private business project managed to get a loan for a territory where a state project is planned to be implemented, SME DNC Deputy Executive Director Karen Gevorgyan said that Hambardzumyan had submitted a business plan without showing where the plot was located, and they had no way of knowing that it was an area adjacent to the Azat Gorge and the Stone Symphony.

Gevorgyan is convinced that the project complied with loan criteria and that is why they approved it. They’ve already provided half of the approved five million drams loan to Hambardzumyan.

Gevorgyan says they haven’t decided what they are going to do next.

 The Armenian Minister of Nature Protection has told reporters that they were studying if the wooden structure now installed is within the boundaries of the natural monument or not. He also mentioned that there are some sanitary conditions and requirements to comply with, since it’s on the bank of the Azat River.

Garni Mayor Aharon Sahakyan, meanwhile, has told reporters that the construction is illegal and was suspended in December 2017. 

Official miscommunication? Government mismanagement? 

The Stone Symphony saga continues to unfold.